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Return to Atlantis: James Wan Talks Aquaman

Return to Atlantis: James Wan Talks Aquaman

By George Taylor Thursday, July 16th, 2020

From ambitious world design to conceptualizing underwater combat, 2018’s Aquaman blazed a splashy new trail.

As any tried and true comic book fan will know, comics have a rich and deep history that doesn’t only involve superheroes. Wait… What? It’s true, and yes, the mainstream stories—the stuff even the most casual fan’s grandma has heard of—primarily involve capes, cowls and gauntlets. But there was a whole line devoted to horror-based comics as well, including DC titles dating back to the early 1950s.

What’s that got to do with the 2018 movie Aquaman, you ask? Well, one prolific filmmaker who made a name for himself in the horror movie world with the Saw, Insidious and—though tending more toward the supernatural—The Conjuring franchises made his big screen superhero debut in a big, big way with Aquaman, the most successful DC Super Hero film to date. However, when you watch the movie (and yes, I know you have, but on the off-chance you haven’t, what are you waiting for?!), you’ll see a nod or two to his roots (the Trench sequence, anyone? Eeek!)…and an undersea vehicle chase or two to rival anything fast or furious.

Ladies and gents, let’s chat with director James Wan about all things Aquaman (or as many as we can fit in a Daily Star column)!

What was it about this character as brought to life by Jason Momoa that drew you in and made you want to make Aquaman?

What really attracted me to this project was the idea that Aquaman is a superhero whose origin story had never quite been done before—at least not on the big screen and never on this scale. I don’t think people quite knew who this guy was or where he comes from. Or they’re familiar with him from the Super Friends TV show, where he was always presented in a somewhat jokey light. That’s what ultimately made this project so exciting for me—I got to take this character that people think they know and present him to the world in a way that’s tough and cool and really badass. And Jason is an amazing Aquaman. I think people get a kick out of seeing Jason play him and fall in love with his sort of roguish charm.

So, that was a big part of the attraction—to come and play with Jason Momoa and tell this character’s story onscreen. But, obviously, the other big part of it was getting to take the audience on this crazy adventure into an amazing world we’ve never seen before—the world of Atlantis and the seven kingdoms, and all the different cultures that people got to experience in this movie. All of that was incredibly exciting to me as a filmmaker.

So, was making the movie its own kind of adventure for you, as both a filmmaker and a movie fan yourself?

Oh, it definitely was. (laughs) For the longest time I’d wanted to make a world-creation movie, so this was a dream project. It was slightly different from what I went through on Fast and Furious 7, which was also a really massive film. But with this one, I got to design and visually create my own world on the biggest canvas imaginable—one that is entirely underwater.

I think that the most fun I’ve had on any of my movies was in the production design process on Aquaman, designing the aesthetic of this magical, other-worldly kingdom—the kingdom of Atlantis—and creating an entire civilization and all the creatures and environments and technologies of that world. It was just incredible. Basically, your imagination is your limit—you can just keep creating things that you’ve never seen before.

Aquaman was obviously a big visual effects movie, but one of your signatures as a director are the cool, inventive practical effects in your films. Is that something you integrated into this production?

Yes, my background is definitely filming with practical effects, and it’s something I just love doing. So, making a film with such a huge visual effects component was, for me, a big step in a different direction. However, it’s one that I embraced and ultimately really enjoyed because it enabled me to kind of create anything I could imagine, and that was the coolest thing to be able to do on a movie like this.

Having said that, if there was something I could achieve on set with practical effects, I would always lean into it. We have all these strange, fascinating creatures in the film, and I still love having creatures be depicted by an actor in some kind of prosthetic suit. So, we did it that way wherever possible, then visual effects would come in and augment them and take them to a whole different level. So, it’s having access to all these great filmmaking tools, but ultimately understanding that they’re just filmmaking tools. The most important thing about a film is still and always will be the storytelling and creating characters that you’re engaged with.

Can you talk about the journey that Aquaman, aka Arthur Curry, takes in this film?

One of the things I love about Aquaman is that he is a superhero who ultimately feels like he doesn’t quite fit in. He’s a character who’s kind of stuck between two worlds—people on the surface world don’t quite trust him because he’s Atlantean and the people of Atlantis don’t trust him either because they see him as a surface-dweller. So, part of the journey for Arthur is trying to be accepted for who he is, and ultimately to accept himself and actually believe in himself. That, to me, is a very interesting arc for a superhero to go through. 

That outsider aspect of the character is also what makes Jason such a terrific actor to embody Aquaman, and something he identifies with as well, as someone who was born in Hawaii and raised in Middle America. I also can understand it, as a guy who was born in Malaysia and then having this strong Australian upbringing—and now living in America. (laughs) So, it felt sort of topical and relevant in the world we live in today.

A lot of comics fans were really excited about seeing Black Manta on screen, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen.

We meet Black Manta at the start of the film and, at that moment, he’s not quite Black Manta yet; he’s still just David Kane. He and his father are leading this mercenary pirate team that hijacks a submarine. That’s how his character comes face-to-face with Aquaman for the first time. But then, through the course of events, his father is killed and he blames Aquaman for his death. So, it’s a classic sort of revenge motivation for his character. From that moment on, he just hates Aquaman and becomes single-minded in his approach to one thing: eradicating Aquaman off the face of this planet. Having said that, Black Manta is not the ‘Big Bad’ of this film—it’s Patrick Wilson’s character, King Orm, who is Arthur’s half-brother.

What can you tell us about filming the epic fight that plays out between Aquaman and King Orm?

Oh, it was an incredible experience to dream up the fights between Jason and Patrick, and also to design a fighting style that we haven’t quite seen before—because it’s set in Atlantis and takes place underwater. So, I got together with my stunt and visual effects teams to devise this epic showdown between these two characters, who confront each other in what we call the Combat of the Kings. They basically stage their battle inside this massive underwater coliseum built into the cone of a submerged volcano. (laughs) You see this crazy underwater fight sequence and watch these two brothers surrounded by steam and lava while they duke it out for the right to the throne of Atlantis. And because it’s this underwater environment, there’s no gravity holding them down, so it feels like they’re flying through space.

Also, I felt for Patrick because I made him say these really, really outrageous things in this film, like, ‘War is coming to the surface and I’m bringing the wrath of the seven seas with me!’ (laughs) But kudos to Patrick Wilson, whom I know so well and fully trust, because I knew that if I put these words in his mouth, he would make it work.

Last question: Do you recall exactly what you were hoping audiences experienced when they saw Aquaman for the first time?

I wanted to tell this story very much in the spirit of the classic action-adventure quest films I loved growing up—that kind of epic storytelling with big romance, a lot of humor and really fun adventures. So, I really just hoped that people would come along on this crazy rollercoaster ride and that, at the end of it, they’d feel like they’d taken the journey with Arthur and walk out inspired.

Be sure to check out the InsiderVerse in the DC FanDome for all kinds of behind-the-scenes looks at how all DC Super Hero movies come to life, and hear about the process straight from the incredibly talented artisans who create worlds like Aquaman’s Atlantis.

Aquaman, starring Jason Momoa and directed by James Wan, is available for streaming on HBO Max. Not yet a subscriber? Kick things off with a free seven-day trial.